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Bucks in the Tall Grass

The ride on the ATV to my hunting area was brutal, to put it mildly. Just being outside in temperatures that are below zero is tough enough but riding in an open vehicle under such conditions will make anyone question their own sanity! With only a week left in the Illinois archery season, it was going to take more than arctic temperatures to keep me out of a tree. I had spent the two previous evenings hunting under similar conditions and on both hunts I had spotted the buck I had been chasing all season. In fact, just the evening before my cameraman Travis Montgomery filmed me shooting right over the buck back at only 20 yards. I may not be the world’s greatest archery shooter but I don’t usually miss at such close range even after a couple of hours of having icicles form in my mustache and beard. In an attempt to find the problem I shot a couple of practice arrows prior to this hunt to see if the issue was with me or my bow.  When my first 2 practice arrows hit the target a foot high at 20 yards, I knew there was a problem with my equipment. After checking to make sure my sight and rest were bolted down tight, I concluded that the problem must be associated with the extreme cold weather. I realigned my sight and then jumped on the ATV with Travis to see if I could redeem myself after yesterday’s blunder.

I parked the ATV along a sparse fencerow a quarter-mile from the stand we would be hunting. Our walk would take us along the edge of a native grass field that I had planted several years earlier. The grasses still stood over six feet high despite the snow cover and offered great bedding cover for the local whitetails. In fact on two occasions during the season I watched from a stand at a distance as the buck I was after stood from his bed in this very field right before dark. On both occasions, he refused to leave the security of the tall grasses until well after legal shooting time had expired. For some reason, recollections of those previous sightings came to my mind as Travis and I walked along the field’s edge. Knowing that the buck sometimes bedded in this tall grass field, I kept an eye on the grass field as we walked along its edge. Although I knew the chances were slim I thought I might possibly spot the antlers of a bedded buck amongst the heavy grass cover. With the brisk wind helping to cover our noise and the fresh snow deadening our sounds even further, this seemed like a possibility no matter how remote.

We had traveled barely 100 yards along the field’s edge when the unbelievable happened. I actually spotted the antlers of the buck I was after as he lay in his bed less than 30 yards from us! On top of that, he was looking the other way and had no idea we were around. I grabbed Travis and pointed out the buck to him as I fished the video camera from his backpack. We stood in silence as I filmed the buck in his bed for about 30 seconds and then handed the camera to Travis with instructions to keep the camera rolling and keep it focused on the buck. I was going to try to get into position for a clear shot at the buck’s vitals.

The snow had drifted up against the tall grass on the edge of the field where we were. The snow drift was about two feet high and on the back side, it dropped straight down. This wall of snow offered the buck protection as well as cover; the only problem for him was that his rack stood up higher than the drift thus exposing him to my prying eyes. I knew that I would have to cross through the drift to be able to get a clean shot at the buck. Knowing this I started working my way into position 20 yards behind the buck and then once I reached the field’s edge I slowly started through the snowdrift with the release snapped to the string of my Mathews. Once I made it through the drift my shooting window was unbelievable. Twenty yards away was a 170-class buck lying in his bed without any idea that I was even on the same planet. There was not a single blade of grass between us that would interfere with a wide-open shot at the buck which was facing straight away from me. I literally stood there for several long seconds admiring the sight of the buck in his bed before drawing my bow.

At the shot, the buck exploded straight up over the 6-foot high grass as if shot from a jack-in-the-box. When he came down his first leap was right at me! I dodged to one side as the buck spotted me and went in the other direction. I turned and watched him run about 150 yards and then tip over dead. I stood there almost stunned at what had just happened. In more than 30 years of chasing whitetails with numerous mature bucks to my credit, I had never shot a buck in his bed and honestly never expected to. In fact, under most circumstances I would be hesitant to even tell the story except for one little detail; Travis had done an awesome job of catching the whole thing on video!

Now I will be the first to admit that a good dose of luck came my way with the taking of this buck. God was certainly my guide on that hunt and His blessing came in the form of a giant whitetail. Luck and blessings aside, this hunt was my payback for the habitat work I have done on my farm and affords me the opportunity to share some great advice to all whitetail hunters and especially those who own or manage their own hunting property.

Several years ago I purchased a tract of land that joined the small farm my wife and I already owned. This tract had a grass-lined ditch running through it but other than that there was no wildlife cover at all. The same year we purchased this tract I was able to sign up for a CRP program which allowed me to plant native warm-season grasses on some of the tillable acreage. One of those grass plantings was in an 8-acre field in the corner of the property. There also happened to be a large tree in the corner of that field which would serve as a great place for an observation stand. From this vantage point, I could watch a huge parcel of real estate for whitetail movement. On my very first hunt in that stand in the fall after planting the native grasses I watched as 8 bucks left their beds in that grass field that evening. I was astounded. That was a buck per acre and a couple of them were mature animals.

In the years that followed I developed a very strong opinion that whitetail bucks, in my region anyway, prefer to bed in these tall native grass fields over any other type of cover. I also began studying these grasses and experimenting with them as I planted more acres to make our farm the best piece of whitetail habitat possible.

After that initial hunt over the grass field where I saw the 8 bucks, I immediately asked myself “why” all those bucks were bedded in the grass. As time went on and I saw more and more whitetails using these grass fields as their daytime bedding cover, the answer became obvious. The seclusion afforded to a reclusive whitetail in these grass fields is second to none. With some species of these grasses reaching 8 feet high or more, it is a fruitless proposition for a human to intrude into them. In fact, on my property, the only time I go into these fields is to retrieve a deer I have shot or to burn them in the spring as part of a maintenance program. Deer virtually never encounter humans or human ground scent in these fields, thus they feel safe spending their daylight hours bedded there.

Besides the seclusion factor, I also feel that there is a comfort factor for whitetail deer bedding in these fields. It is no secret that deer like to bed in thick cover. From a visibility standpoint, there is nothing thicker in my area than these grasses. A bedded whitetail won’t be able to see 10 feet in any direction in most cases. I also speculate that the beds of matted-down grass that I have seen in these fields are a whole lot more comfortable to bedded deer than many of the alternatives.

I have used the term “native grasses” thus far without explanation. What I am specifically referring to is “native warm-season grasses”. These grasses differ from “cool-season grasses” in that they do the majority of their annual growth during the warm summer months, maturing in the fall. Cool-season grasses on the other hand green up early in the spring and reach maturity early in the summer. By the time the summer heat shows up, they have already set seed heads and any significant growth has stopped although they will green back up in the fall as cooler and wetter conditions return.

There are several species of warm-season native grasses and these species grow to various heights. Many folks who are not really familiar with these grasses mistakenly refer to them all as “switchgrass”. Switchgrass is actually one of many different species of native warm-season grasses. The taller species make the best cover for whitetails; some of those species are Big Bluestem, Indian grass, and some switchgrass varieties. To make things a little confusing, there are also a number of “varieties” of each species. For example, there are at least a half dozen varieties of both Big Bluestem and Indian grass and more than a dozen varieties of switchgrass. 

I learned a long time ago that there are some very important differences between varieties of the same species. One difference is the mature height of varieties within a species. One good example again is the switchgrass varieties. Some switchgrass varieties will be knee-high at maturity while others will be over 8 feet tall. Whitetail hunters and land managers are definitely most interested in the taller varieties within a species but there is an even more important trait to be mindful of. Some varieties have a much better “stand-ability” than others. I have had experience with some varieties of native warm-season grasses that would lay flat to the ground after a strong wind or heavy snow hit them. Needless to say, a field of these grasses offers very little cover when they are lying flat on the ground no more than six inches high. It goes without saying that a variety that matures at 6 feet in height and stands up well to extreme weather conditions is a much better choice than an 8-foot tall variety that lays flat to the ground the first time a strong wind hits it.

Hunting these fields can seem like a challenge but I have found an approach that works very well for me. I simply leave the fields as bedding sanctuaries where the deer can spend their daylight hours and feel secure. I then hunt around the edges of these fields always being mindful that the wind does not blow my scent into them. One of the primary concerns of a whitetail land manager is to get the deer to stay on their property during daylight hours. This extremely important factor is often overlooked as many focus on providing food sources while downplaying the significant contribution that quality bedding cover plays in hunting success. I would much rather have the deer bedding on my property and feeding on the neighbor than vice versa. Fields of native warm-season grasses address this need as well as any other form of cover. 

If you are fortunate enough to own hunting property, warm-season native grasses can offer the whitetails on your land a secure bedding area and increase your hunting success. I feel so strongly about the benefit of these grasses that I plan to plant 20 more acres of them on my farm next spring. Even if you don’t own a hunting property you can benefit from increased hunting success by looking for such cover as you seek out new hunting lands. Just keep in mind that if it looks like a great cover for a rooster pheasant then it is likely a great spot for a whitetail buck. I can’t promise you that you will be able to walk up and shoot big mature bucks in their beds but you very well may end up shooting the biggest buck of your life.

More Info on Native Warm Season Grasses

Native warm-season grasses are an excellent form of wildlife habitat. Fields of these grasses host a wide variety of wildlife and are a great compliment to other forms of habitat. From my experience, these native grass fields need to be at least 5 acres in size to offer the most benefit to wildlife. Smaller fields do not offer the same sanctuary benefits as larger fields. In my opinion, the optimum size would be between 10 and 40 acres.

Establishing these native grasses can be a bit more difficult than other crops or grasses but by following some strict guidelines even a novice can do it successfully. To begin make sure the planting area has been sprayed with a combination of herbicides including glyphosate and Plateau. The glyphosate will kill any weeds already growing on the site and the Plateau is a specialty herbicide for these native grass plantings which will act as a residual to curtail further weed competition. 

Another common mistake is planting the seed too deep. These seeds should be planted no more than ¼ inch deep and 1/8 inch is better. Warm-season native grass seed is expensive and a lot of it has been wasted by planting too deep.

Often newly planted fields look more like weed fields for the first year or two as these grasses can be slow to establish. Much of the grass seedling’s early growth goes to the root system which can be as deep as 10 feet. Beginning the third year the field should be burned in the spring every two or three years. Burning serves a couple of important functions. First, these grasses respond very well to fire and will flourish after being burned. Secondly, the fire burns a lot of weed seeds and woody sprouts which would otherwise eventually take over the grass field. When planning the layout of a native grass field keep in mind that firebreaks may need to be planted around the edge to keep future fires from reaching areas where they would do damage. I plant my firebreaks in clover which I keep mowed to serve as food plots as well as firebreaks. 

Take great care in choosing the species and varieties of grasses to plant on your site. I recommend at least 3 species of grasses in the blend to ensure a successful planting. I am co-founder of a food plot seed company (Real World Wildlife Products) which also offers warm-season native grass seed blends. Our specialty product called “Bedding in a Bag” was specifically developed to provide quality whitetail bedding cover. It contains Big Bluestem, Indian Grass, and Switchgrass. The key to this product is the testing and research we have done to select the specific varieties of these species which will offer a substantial height to hide whitetails and also offer great standability under harsh weather conditions. 

We have also developed a variety of switchgrass that we believe stands better than any other variety available. It grows to 7-8’ tall and has unbelievable standability. As our customers have experienced fantastic results with Real World switchgrass, sales have exploded and we typically sell out of seed each spring. To learn more on how to utilize switch grass on your hunting property check out our Deer Hunting Training Videos here on Whitetail Master Academy.